My introduction to Sargana

Adapted from Jayaswal, A.

On May 1, I reached Sargana as part of our research project on labour migration and politics in India. My first impressions of Sargana was shaped by a number of political and economic events in the village’s life. One, elections were due the following day, and election campaigning had just concluded. Two, the imprint of the newly-established law prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol was unmistakable. Three, the corn crop was ready for harvest. Four, as the summer wore on, people were refurbishing their hutments with locally-available bamboo strips. Five, some families were preparing to travel out for work as soon as the elections were over and they had cast their vote. 

That it was election season was evident from the posters pasted on the bamboo and mud-baked walls of houses across Sargana. Under India’s affirmative action regulations, the position of Sargana’s President had been reserved for a woman from the Scheduled Caste community. A total of nineteen candidates were contesting the elections. Each one of them was represented by an electoral symbol. I was struck by two of these symbols. One of these was the ‘maize’, quite appropriate because it was after all the maize-harvesting season. Another symbol to which I was attracted was the ‘shuttle-cock’. I had not quite expected people in Sargana to be fans of badminton, but perhaps a fascination with that which is distant motivated the candidate to have such a symbol. I could not help wondering how easy it might be for the candidate bearing the corn symbol to be identifiable, and how difficult- conversely- it might be for the one with the symbol of the shuttle cock. Or it might even be the other way round! Sure, the voters would cast their ballots based on substantive issues, but if the votes were cast purely on the basis of the symbols, I wondered who would carry the day.

As voting day, May 2, dawned, people queued up since early in the morning at the two polling booths in the village- one at the primary school and the other at the secondary school. Kiosks selling paan (betel leaves) has sprouted en route to the polling booths. At the booths, candidates’ assistants were checking off the names on the voting register against the electoral slips which voters had brought with them. they were also talking among themselves about the possible victors and waves. 

One has heard so many stories about vote-buying in northern India that I could not help wondering how votes in Sargana might have been purchased, if at all. In my own village in Uttar Pradesh, we frequently heard the following slogan during elections:

Chai-samosa kaccha vote, murg-daaru pucca vote. 

(If candidates provide tea and samosas to people, they might win votes. But if they provide alcohol and chicken, they can be assured of people’s votes.).

But Bihar was under prohibition since April 1, 2016. To promote this message, the local education committee came up with this slogan:

Tum piyoge daaru, toh bacha lagayega jhaadu

(If you drink alcohol, your child will be sweeping the floor- a metaphor for menial labour)

Complaining about the prohibition, one man accused the government of making women queens and men their slaves!

I have yet to find out the extent to which the law is actually enforced on the ground, but my first impression is that it is.

This was also the occasion when householders refurbished their houses. In doing so, they paid special attention to the bamboo gauzes that propped up their mud huts. Typically, households would have to replace the existing bamboo gauzes with new ones. Propping the mud structures with bamboo houses kept homes cool and well-ventilated during the summer. It was also cheaper than building a house of concrete. While for people who cultivated bamboo, building such gauzes was no problem. For others, however, who had to buy bamboo from the market, it was an expensive proposition. ANKUR: Can you give a sense of how much bamboo cost in the market?

Credit: Ankur Jayaswal

Credit: Ankur Jayaswal

The cropping cycle was in full swing. The maize crop was being harvested. The crop was strong enough to withstand the storm on the night of May 3 and 4. Some families were plucking out the corn from maize cobs using a thresher. The cobs were then used as fuel by others, like the owner of a chai kiosk who used the cobs instead of coal while these were still available. The leaves of the crop were consumed by farm animals. Other farmers had harvested their wheat crop a few weeks prior to my arrival. They had planted moong pulse on their farms, expected to ripen in about sixty days. The sunflowers were in full bloom, with the flowers so heavy they were stooping to the ground rather than facing the sun. The sunflower-farmers would be pleased, because the heavier the sunflower the greater the number of grains that could be extracted. These would be harvested after the maize crop was taken care of. However, while the farmers could look forward to profits, they resisted paying their workers the full share of the wages legislated by the State. 

Ankur: how much did labourers earn on the fields? And do you know the minimum wage legislation for wheat and maize. 

Partially to avoid the constant haggling with local farmers but also because no major economic activity was anticipated in Sargana till paddy cultivation would begin in July, a number of Sargana’s labouring class population looked towards opportunities outside of the village. A great majority of them had been doing this for years, and had built up contacts with contractors and employers across India. Many more had already left to take up employment on farms in Punjab and construction sites in Delhi. More would leave in the next few weeks. I hope to travel with one of them and will relay their and their companions’ stories over the next one year. 

Stay tuned.